When I was on a summer abroad program in (what was then) Leningrad during the summer of 1991, there were shortages of just about everything one could want to eat. The state-run grocery stores contained little but jars of pickled vegetables. Farmers’ markets by the metro stations had fresh fruit and vegetables but at exorbitant prices. The one food item that could be bought in abundance for cheap was bread: crusty white loaves and heavy black breads sold for less than a ruble in the bakeries, and cheese-stuffed Georgian breads went for a bit more in the market. Anyone could afford bread, even the rock solid babushkas with their swollen ankles living on their pensions, even the young families stretching to make ends meet on two salaries – anyone. We students used to speculate about how many days it would take for the country to descend into chaos if the bread supply were to be sabotaged, if the bread were just to disappear from a neighborhood, from the city, from everywhere within a reasonable distance to travel. Two days was my guess. No one thought it would take more than a week.
I thought of this guessing game last Saturday when I read that Egypt is short of bread. As in the last days of the USSR, bread has apparently been the refuge of the poor, the foodstuff most heavily subsidized and most readily available, but rising wheat prices and rampant speculation in the controlled bread market have led to shortages, and thus to rationing. Things have come to such a pass that President Mubarak has ordered the army to bake and deliver bread for the poor. This innovative (and laudable) use of the army suggests that Mubarak has also viewed the loss of food security as a threat to Egypt’s national security. How many days, I wondered, would it take for Egypt to descend into chaos without bread? Not long at all, as it turns out: thousands began rioting on Sunday over economic conditions, including the widespread bread shortages.
But worse, how many other nations teeter on the edge of food and security crises, and what, if anything is being done about it? Recent reports suggest that grain prices have shot upward worldwide and that this shift is having dire consequences in countries with far less wealth and resources than Egypt has to stabilize itself.